The metamorphosis of Nathan Chen

If one were to choose the most significant performance of these past world championships, the one that would not only reflect the competition itself, but also the broader context of the state of figure skating today, the main contender, no doubt, would be Nathan Chen’s free skate. The technical difficulty paired with the surgical precision of execution, the modern music interpreted by the modern choreography, the emotional restraint and level-headedness — that dam that bursts at the end with a violent whirlwind of emotions — all these are features both of modern figure skating and more generally the world we live in today. This is the virtual world of high technologies, behind the shiny surface of which there is still a human being with their emotions unabated, perhaps more desperate than ever.

Much has been and will be said about the technical side of this free skate. But today I would like to talk about the music, the feelings, about the aesthetics of this program by Shae-Lynn Bourne, about its coordinate system. About the reality in which we all found ourselves after watching Nathan’s performance.

Shards of glass in a kaleidoscope: The Entrance

Philip Glass, along with Steve Reich and Terry Riley, is one of the three founding fathers of the American minimalism. What is American minimalism and what makes it distinct? First, it is the repetitiveness combined with the use of the simplest means of expression. This means the repetition of rhythmic and harmonic patterns from which a musical whole is built. Second, it is the simple chord progressions and melodic gestures, the simplest rhythmic profile. What is the secret? One repetition of a musical phrase bestows the joy of recognition on the listener. Two or three repetitions give this musical phrase emphasis and underscore its semantic significance. Four or five repetitions — and now the listener starts to get apprehensive and begins to wonder if the composer is simply burned out. But what if there are dozens or hundreds of these repetitions? What if the whole work is a slightly modified repetition of one phrase, as if the composer simply turns the tube of a kaleidoscope in front of our eyes, where one set of colored shards of glass gives birth to new pictures every time? Quantity inevitably turns into quality and creates a new emotional reality. Music like this turns easily into a comfortable background or, conversely, can be a source of meditative concentration. It can be a platitude or a source of revelation, depending on the listener’s reaction. It creates an equally suitable ambiance for chopping vegetables in the kitchen and for writing a dissertation. And, of course, it is eminently suitable to dance and skate to: it provides a comfortable rhythmic background for movement.
In this genre of music there is a place for development but it always takes the form of “phase shifts”, and not natural, organic growth.

For Glass these “shifts” occur during the transitions from “soft” to “loud”, or from longer to shorter note values, which creates the effect of a sharp acceleration of the tempo. This music seems to lead the listener up the stairs: we move from one step to another, move from one plateau to another. Each “plateau” allows time to look around, to get used to the new reality.

Once again this renders the minimal music (or ‘minimalist’, as it is sometimes referred to) very suitable for interpretation in dance: each new “plateau” provides a transition to a new type of movement, to the new dynamics of dance. Nathan’s program is structured exactly this way. There are transitions from the jump-rich “plateau” of the piano version of the Second Metamorphosis and the first part of the Violin Concerto, to the step sequence to the soundtrack from the movie “The Truman Show,” to the emotional peak of the same Second Metamorphosis, now presented as a remix by Kummerspeck (a small snippet can be heard in the video below).

As a result we are back at the beginning but this time on a different emotional level. The spiral has completed another loop; the minute hand has gone a full circle.

Plateau I: The Hours

In addition to ballet and figure skating, minimal music is regularly featured in movies. Metamorphosis No. 2 by Glass in the beginning of Nathan’s program originally appeared in the documentary movie “The Thin Blue Line” (1988). Later Glass created a piano arrangement that eventually became the second of the five “Metamorphoses” released as part of the 1988 album. It is the piano version that appears in Chen’s program. Ten years later the same track became one of the main themes of the feature film “The Hours” that recounts the life of the English writer Virginia Woolf. This orchestral version will become the basis of the remix at the end of the program.

The even rhythm and regularity of the repetitions of the same musical pattern provide that rhythmic and structural basis onto which the choreography and the elements are superimposed. The secret of the expressiveness of these elements, in addition to the quality of the performance itself, lies in the precise coordination with the musical pace and structure. For example, the landing of the quad lutz signals the end of the first musical phrase — that cornerstone that forms the basis of this entire work by Glass.

Or the triple lutz that appears on the border between the two pieces and leads from the Second Metamorphosis to the first movement of the Violin Concerto.

Or the spin that seems to be “out of focus” at first due to the inconspicuous coordination with the music but that later acquires the necessary focus with each new change of position, until finally it reaches absolute unity during the sit spin and the exit from it.

The secret of the entire first half of the program is in the precise, clockwork-like coordination of elements and transitions with the underlying musical structure.

Plateau II: Nathan Sleeps

A new section of the program and its meditative center is the step sequence to the soundtrack from “The Truman Show”: or more precisely, to the soundtrack of the broadcast of a sleeping Truman.

The decision to make the step sequence “the calm before the storm” is very unusual. The choreographers would often try to make the step sequence the semantic and dynamic center of the program. It is the opposite here: you can meditate and think about the meaning of life to Nathan’s step sequence. This is the true, soft culmination of the entire program, a moment of complete immersion in oneself, a total emotional detachment and crystal clear transparency.

This is also the moment at which the unity of music and movement reaches its peak: the boundaries of each phrase are carefully marked by steps; all pauses are evident in the skater’s momentary cessations of motion: in his two-feet gliding, in the spread eagle, in the silent “ticking” of the twizzles; in the almost imperceptible lunge and the drop to the knee.

I am sure that many people will remember Nathan’s program for its finale but this step sequence is especially precious to me. This is a moment of total immersion in oneself, reflection, meditation, introversion. Like the scene of the sleeping hero in the film itself, this is perhaps the most intimate and heartfelt section of the program.

Plateau III: Metamorphosis

The magic spell of the step sequence is followed by another “phase shift” leading to the finale of the program which has the impact of a hurricane. The musical transition (done very professionally and subtly by the way) takes place right before the 4T-1Eu-3F combination.

The finale consists of the two difficult jump combinations, a triple axel that is not the most comfortable jump for Nathan, a choreographic sequence and a final spin.
An explosion of energy in the music is expressed on the ice in the form of complex technical elements that seem to undermine from the inside the cool-headed, measured and slightly phlegmatic sequence of steps that preceded them. The tension reaches its peak in the choreographic sequence with the Boitano-like spread eagle that vibrates with tension. The tension is discharged by the lightning of a spectacular lutz kick.

The finale is the last metamorphosis of the program and the metamorphosis of the skater himself. This is a breakthrough, a breakthrough of everything that is “all too human”: all those emotions, whose existence we may have forgotten behind the brilliant high-tech surface of the first half of the program.
And the exit from the game.

The Nathan Show: The Exit

One of the most famous quotes from the movie “The Truman Show” belongs to the creator of the reality show Christof:

“We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”

For Truman, the main protagonist of the film, this reality turns out to be a reality show broadcast to the whole world, within the framework of which he was born and within the framework of which he must die. Nathan Chen’s performances are the reality of figure skating that has been presented to us for the last couple of years; and we got used to it! It seems normal to us that someone can do 4-5 quads in one program and not collapse at the end; it seems normal to us that someone can get over 120 points for the technical content and at the same time show good skating and sophisticated modern programs. We have accepted the reality that Nathan is presenting to us.

And it is all the more surprising that within the framework of a system of coordinates created with his own hands, it is he who breaks through this reality over and over again. It is he who in an insane leap breaks through the artificial tent — these fake boundaries of a fake show — and leads us further. That he becomes the one who, pausing on the threshold and looking at the stunned spectators and rivals, says to all of them over and over again:

“Good morning! And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”

Photo credit: Joosep Martinson // Gettyimages

Author: Mikhail Lopatin (see the original Russian version of this article)
English translation: The Green Manuela (Twitter)

P.S. I thank Little Sparrow (Twitter) for her selfless and prompt help with some of the technical questions.

One thought on “The metamorphosis of Nathan Chen”

  1. I love the way you write and thank you for explaining American Minimalism. Your “Nathan Metamorphosis” is
    brilliant. I first became his fan when I saw him skate to “Godfather” in 2012. Another yt video I like very much
    is a split screen of him and M. Baryshnikov. It is under Nathan Chen/Balanchine. Well, thank you again and
    I hope you will write more articles about skating. One more thing; thank God Emma is ok.

    Liked by 1 person

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